Solving the Italian rugby riddle
21 February 2018
ROME – The beginning to this Six Nations campaign has offered similar results to those of years gone by. Lacklustre defeats to England, Ireland and France have once again sparked a fierce debate over Italy's future in the tournament. However, results elsewhere in the sport have begun to offer some hope to the Italian faithful.
In Italy’s first ever Six Nations game during the 2000 campaign, the rugby equivalent of the famous Azzurri came up against the might of the Irish. Fast forward 18 years and many Italian defeats later and the same situation presented itself, this time on weekend two of the Championship. On both occasions, Ireland’s victory was little more than a procession.
The long-suffering Northern Hemisphere rugby fans have always been supporters of the underdog, but with Italy, this support now runs deeper. There is an overarching feeling that Italy's future might well be on the line.
It is unquestionable that Italy is on the kind of losing run, which is making their future less rather than more certain. The team has received the wooden spoon without tasting victory in the last two Championships and has suffered 75 defeats from 87 Tests since they first joined the Six Nations. Indeed, the last time that Sergio Parisse’s arm was raised in victory was three tournaments ago against Scotland in 2015.
At ground level, there is the prevailing thought that if the Italians continue to compete with this sort of win/loss ratio, public support will inevitably decline and with it, any vestige of an argument that Italy can retain a consistent place in the Six Nations Championship.
Whilst this may be painting a picture of doom and gloom, Italy has undoubtedly ceded more ground in the last two seasons. The country’s rugby scene has certainly never enjoyed a robust framework like you might find in any one of the other ‘five nations’ and this absence of structure has played a pivotal role in the lack of Italian progress.
During the period when Italy first joined the Six Nations, the then Celtic League, which is now known by the more famous PRO14 title, was developing as an important breeding ground for club rugby. The league welcomed several Irish teams which have largely thrived and now act as feeder clubs for the national side.
In a similar manner, Scotland’s resurgence over the past couple of years can be directly attributed to the form of Glasgow in the PRO14. The Glaswegians currently sit atop the standings and the spine of a very successful club rugby side has transferred seamlessly onto the international stage.
At the beginning of this campaign, Wales’ coach Warren Gatland selected a back line that was largely made up of Scarlets players, who play together week in week out in the PRO14. Gatland’s hand was somewhat forced to due to an injury crisis, however the importance of club rugby cannot be underestimated. By contrast, Italy’s two PRO14 sides, Zebre and Benetton have never really thrived in such a way that their national side can reap the rewards of their success. That is until now.
Italy's impassioned resilience has previously spurred them on to one-off tournament victories, but the new Italian coach Conor O'Shea has decided to employ an overhaul of all things Italian rugby, in order to transform the country’s fortunes in the sport. The former Harlequins head coach O'Shea has previously been praised for being a clever tactician, but his desire to apply the club-into-country winning system to improve the Italians can only be seen as common sense rather than a moment of genius.
This season's markedly improved performances by Italy's two top-tier sides deem both the Italian club rugby scene and indeed the national side, worthy of greater respect and consideration. Both club teams are enjoying their most competitive campaigns to date and a day after Italy's defeat in Dublin, Benetton notched an impressive win against the defending champions Scarlets, to add to earlier season scalps of Edinburgh and back to back wins against rivals Zebre.
Firmly in contrast to the famed Italian style of scoring a famous Six Nations win followed by multiple barren seasons, Benetton have managed to string together a pattern of winning performances that is far removed from previous campaigns where they were at times, far from competitive. Conor O’Shea has repeatedly singled out the important role that the Benetton and Zebre academies must play and this focus on grass roots will undoubtedly yield improved results.
"It might be gradual, but there is a belief that progress is being made. We shouldn't just look at the end result of a match, we should look at the small battles that we are winning," said O’Shea after Italy’s defeat to England earlier in the campaign.
"We are becoming a better team, we're getting more depth, there's more competition, the franchises are doing really well -- Zebre's playing well, Benetton's playing well -- and I think that is what the focus is on."
There is undoubtedly growing pressure on O’Shea and the Italian Rugby Federation to translate club rugby into international success and heavy defeats such as those inflicted by England and Ireland will only serve to fuel questions regarding Italy’s future.
However, flash back three years to Italy’s famous victory over Scotland and the then Scottish side is unrecognisable to the force that it currently represents. International rugby must allow Conor O’Shea space and time to implement his structure. How much time is another question.